Nuclear Proliferation

29 January 2004

Nuclear Proliferation: It’s Not Always About You

By Gwynne Dyer

“We were all wrong,” David Kay told the US Senate Armed Forces Committee on 28 January, admitting that he no longer believes that Saddam Hussein had any ‘weapons of mass destruction’. But the arms inspector who led the Bush administration’s Iraq Survey Group in the post-invasion search for the banned weapons, and finally quit last week when he couldn’t find any, still thinks we should all be worried sick about North Korea’s alleged weapons of mass destruction.

“North Korea is an enigma, probably with nuclear weapons and long-range missiles,” the former top Central Intelligence Agency adviser told the senators. “I would probably put it higher up on my scale of gathering threat (than Iraq).”

Well, he would say that, since he doesn’t want to burn his bridges with all his friends and former colleagues who are still inside the intelligence world. He admits that their spectacular failure to get Iraq right is “most disturbing” — especially since they have been just as wrong in assessing the nuclear-weapons programmes of Iran, North Korea and Libya — but he won’t go beyond calling for an inquiry into why the CIA, the DIA and all the other US intelligence agencies (not to mention all their pals in Britain, France, Germany, etc.) got the facts wrong.

That would be useful as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go nearly far enough. What David Kay he doesn’t call for is the application of common-sense to the interpretation of the intelligence data. Much of it is bound to be wrong, confusing, or deliberately misleading, and if you always go for the worst-case analysis, you are only doing half of your professional job.

For example, we are currently being told that the comic-opera dictator of Libya, Muammar Gadafy, has been forced to close down his nuclear weapons programme because the US invasion of Iraq scared him into behaving. This is nonsense: Gadafy started trying to cut a deal with the West and worm his way back into the good graces of the international community by taking responsibility for the 1988 bombing of Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie almost a decade ago, long before 9/11, Iraq and all that. But the much bigger fact they are leaving out is that Gadafy COULDN’T develop nuclear weapons.

He may have bought some stolen plans from rogue Pakistani nuclear scientists and some centrifuges off the black market in order to indulge his fantasies, but do you take us for fools? Libya developing nuclear weapons? This is a country where almost all the really skilled technical work is done by foreigners on contract. (There are well-educated Libyans, but most of them fled abroad long ago.) Libya nuclear weapons were never going to happen, and Gadafy decided long ago that the ‘programme’ was only a bargaining chip to be traded for the restoration of diplomatic relations with the United States.

Good intelligence work doesn’t cook the results to suit the purposes of your political masters, and it doesn’t just count beans (or centrifuges). It also deals with the likely goals, motives and strategies of the target governments, and the political context they work in. There certainly hasn’t been much of that in evidence lately. The case of North Korea is very much to the point.

North Korea is the world’s last Stalinist state, run by the world’s first hereditary Communist ruler. Not only that, but Kim Jong-il wears platform shoes and watches three videos a day. Clearly he’s crazy, and he is trying to develop nuclear weapons so that he can — do what? Bring the United States to its knees? Take over the world? Corner the global market in videos and shoes? Just before we launch a pre-emptive attack on him and bring all of East Asia crashing down around our ears, could you intelligence whizzes let us have your thoughts on his motives and his strategy?

Let’s see, now. Kim Jong-il rules a country so poor and badly managed that many North Koreans are starving, and his neighbours in South Korea have three times the population and an economy twenty times as big. All of North Korea’s other near neighbours — Russia, China, and Japan — are even bigger and more powerful, and none of them likes or trusts him. Neither does the United States, which keeps 35,000 soldiers in South Korea to underwrite its promise to use nuclear weapons to repel an attack from the North, if necessary, and under the Bush administration it has further declared that it plans to destroy Kim’s regime.

So could it be that Kim is scared to death, and that his nuclear weapons (if he has any) are intended to deter an attack on North Korea? And if he doesn’t yet have any useable nukes — which seems likely, since the kind of bulky first-generation weapons he might produce probably wouldn’t fit atop his existing rockets — don’t you think he would lie and claim that he does have them anyway?

The notion that North Korea is planning to attack anybody is implausible, and the idea that it would launch a nuclear first strike against anybody is frankly unbelievable. A good intelligence service would be offering the government it serves this analysis and urging it to offer North Korea a security guarantee in return for its nuclear weapons programme. But it’s more fun — and much more rewarding, in the current political context — to run around shouting that the sky is falling.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 6. (“For example…UnitedStates”)